New York

Walt Kuhn

Kennedy Galleries

Apart from relating picaresque details of Walt Kuhn’s life—learning tap dance from Pat Rooney II, Making It on the Great White Way, few of Frank Getlein’s claims made in the Kennedy catalog are sustained in the exhibition proper (though, perhaps, to categorically deny them might be equally grandiloquent). The disparity between essay and exhibition owes to the fact that by and large the hanging is composed of paintings that come from the last decade of the artist’s life. To put the matter bluntly, one gained the impression that the Kennedy Galleries were “pushing” the work of the forties (Kuhn died in 1949) a corpus which, to me, seemed inferior to the mature painting of the thirties, of which several examples were scattered about to “bolster” the poor impression made by the faltering hand of a painter who, at best, was only good. Certainly Getlein’s contention that Kuhn “was one of the most powerful and original painters of the century, one of the few of whom we can say with some certainty that his work and his reputation will survive this century,” is untenable in the face of the present installation. Instead, Walt Kuhn may well turn out to be one of those notable American figures about whom it is better to read or who is better defended by single, occasional works in public or private collections (such as Averell Harriman’s White Clown of 1929) but for whom august occasions such as the present one may be more disastrous and undermining than ultimately beneficial.

Walt Kuhn, at his best, is a kind of well-stitched tennis ball lobbed between Cézanne and Edward Hopper (to whom he cannot hold a candle despite the inevitable coupling of their names). The seams appear less secure when we recognize the all too apparent reliance on Kies Van Dongen and later Derain. The effect of a smart French touch is particularly sensible in Kuhn’s yeux cernés, a cosmetically vapid method of depicting the eye which, by the time we reach the late work, is responsible for much of the mawkish and sentimentally trivial expressions of his sitters. Kuhn’s stoic circus performers had, by his last decade, grown into copyrighted renditions of Bert Lahr and Bob Barry, aimed, it seemed, for sale to an insensitive bourgeois audience titillated by facile lachrymose effects.

Kuhn is best known and rightly admired for his burly, Hartleyesque paintings of circus entertainers (recalling Rouault in this as in other ways) so that Getlein’s recollection that Kuhn spent every night backstage during the New York run of the Ring-ling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus comes as an affirmation of this literarily loaded thematic predisposition. These exemplary figure paintings, American cousins to Karl Hofer’s German clowns, date from a decade when Kuhn was already an established figure, even a legend, the pivot on which the revolution of the Armory Show had turned. These chunky figure pieces, painted in broad swathes of color, ultimately date back beyond Cézanne to Manet. The work of the forties weakly stutters the lessons of these masters, the still lifes particularly, with their student-like concrete pink roses and copybook arrangements of apples, pumpkins and driftwood.

Perhaps all is not as bleak as all this sounds. An occasional work of the forties speaks some of the argot of the earlier period. Black Butterfly is a Tallulah-like circus artiste decked out in black tights and feathers at her hips. Moreover the exhibition is supplemented with a display of Kuhn’s graphics, largely from the twenties. While the respectable graphic production is a highly derivative affair—Kuhn’s friendship with Jules Pascin is potently attested to in these works—this abandoned oeuvre gives a clue to a possible reassessment of the paintings of the forties. They provide a glimpse of an erotic, rococo Arcadia which Kuhn, the septuagenarian, nostalgically may have kept close to his heart and which, as an old man, he attempted to rediscover. But Arcady’s sun was, by the war years, cold.

Robert Pincus-Witten